How one man’s rumor became everyone’s news story

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Let’s get this out of the way right from the get-go: There is no legitimate indication that Minnesota DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar is on a short list of possible Supreme Court nominees to replace Justice John Paul Stevens if he retires. None.

So why are so many political reporters making a story out of it, suggesting that she is? Because so many political reporters are making a story out of it, suggesting that she is.

The “Klobuchar to the Supreme Court” story is a perfect example of creating a story where none exists, merely by repeating what reporters and bloggers are writing. In the new media world, it’s also an example of the role blogs play in amplifying a non-story to story status.

How did this start? It is almost entirely the work of Tom Goldstein, who writes the SCOTUSblog, and was the first to mention that Amy Klobuchar was not on the conjecture lists of other bloggers and writers: 

The most serious remaining candidate to General Kagan might actually be someone who has not really been discussed in the published so-called “short lists”: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Goldstein, basically, made it up by noting that nobody had mentioned Klobuchar and Supreme Court in the same sentence. But someone actually had — Goldstein. He did it for the first time in May 2009, when he was speculating about replacements for Justice David Souter.

Goldstein provided no attribution to indicate his suggestion had been informed by anybody else in a position to know. What he wrote in February 2010 was not anything new, and not anything sourced, but it was enough to set the “did you hear?” machine in motion. MinnPost’s Eric Black was first to repeat Goldman’s “list.”

In mid-March, an AOL blogger created a list of replacements, citing only “speculation” on Klobuchar (and others), but not mentioning that the speculation came from one blogger.

On Friday April 2, Huffington Post repeated that Klobuchar’s name “has been mentioned,” also without indicating that it was only Goldstein and other bloggers mentioning it.

Two days later, Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer faciliated the rumor crossing into the “mainstream media”, when he repeated it on his Sunday show, only to be shot down by his guest.

But it was too late. By Monday, MPR (Klobuchar for Supreme Court?), City Pages (“Amy Klobuchar for U.S. Supreme Court? “), Minnesota Independent (“Klobuchar for Supreme Court?“), and the Star Tribune (“SCOTUS speculation touches on Klobuchar“) all had stories that referenced Goldstein’s remark, but none noted that his original remark noted that Klobuchar wasn’t on anybody’s list.

On Monday, Slate Magazine repeated Goldstein’s rumor, then indicated that Klobuchar was not on a list of possible nominees circulated by Bloomberg.

By then, Klobuchar was saying she’s not interested in the job.

As if there’s any real indication she’s in a position to be asked.

  • bsimon

    “As if there’s any real indication she’s in a position to be asked.”

    People playing the SCOTUS appointment parlor game include her for several reasons:

    1) she’s a she; given Justice Ginsberg’s health, Justice Sotomayor may soon be the lone female on the court soon.

    2) she has practical experience with the law in an area that is underrepresented on the SCOTUS – prosecution & having a non-academic background.

    3) she is familiar with the political process, which is largely untrue of current members of the court

    4) she’d likely pass easy confirmation – because a) the Senate tends to be somewhat deferential to its members, and b) she doesn’t have a particularly partisan or ideological record.

    5) she’s young; appointing a younger person to the SCOTUS leaves a more lasting impression on the court’s makeup.

    The most significant negative I’ve heard is that her successor in the senate would be appointed by Gov Pawlenty, which may or may not be a risk the Obama administration is willing to take.

    Not to be too snarky, but the conclusion somewhat reminds me of the “Norm Coleman is running for governor” post.

  • Bob Collins

    The post is not about whether she’s qualified or not; it’s about how a rumor — a game is perhaps a better word — rises to news story status.

    The best indicator, however, of her chances for appointment would be to actually GET on the list. When she is, wake me. (g)

  • bsimon

    “The post is not about whether she’s qualified or not; it’s about how a rumor — a game is perhaps a better word — rises to news story status.”

    The answer would seem to be that the rumor rises to news precisely because she is qualified and would be a surprise, out of the box pick.

    If the argument is that the media shouldn’t report on rumors, maybe we can stop all the ‘speculation’ that Gov Pawlenty is running for President & just wait for his announcement sometime in 2011. But we don’t do that, because the process of speculating draws viewers/listeners/readers/page hits.

  • Bob Collins

    //The answer would seem to be that the rumor rises to news precisely because she is qualified and would be a surprise, out of the box pick. If the argument is that the media shouldn’t report on rumors, maybe we can stop all the ‘speculation’ that Gov Pawlenty is running for President & just wait for his announcement sometime in 2011.

    Two entirely different things.

    The “rumor” story creates the untrue and unsubstantiated impression that Sen. Klobuchar is a potential Supreme Court Justice. TEchnically true, but it’s based on a blog post that says that she’s NOT on any short list. Follow the links and note the number of “repeat someone else’s blog” post that note she’s on “a list.” It’s not THE list, of course, it’s A list — a list from a blogger.

    Pawlenty is another story. Pick up any presidential candidate’s book, and find the one that starts “On XXXX xx, 19XX, my campaign for president began when I officially announced.”

    Presidential campaigns don’t start there. They start (a) when an officeholder doesn’t run again (b) when a pac is formed (c) when a candidate starts making appearances unrelated to his day job in key primary states etc.

    Gov. Pawlenty *is* doing all of those things. The speculation is based on proven facts. In other words: “It’s a duck.”

    The Klobuchar story is not. The Klobuchar story is the laxy repeating of one person’s blog to create the illusion of significant news.

  • bsimon

    “The Klobuchar story is not. The Klobuchar story is the laxy repeating of one person’s blog to create the illusion of significant news.”

    I would find that explanation far more compelling if there were comments from Goldman explaining how he came up with Sen Klobuchar’s name in the first place. The original post dismisses Goldman’s piece because nobody else has reported the possibility, other than repeating Goldman’s statement. Ok, chasing the source down is certainly a good start to the story. By why not follow through & get the explanation from Goldman for how he picked Klobuchar over other longshot potential nominees like gov Granholm (MI), or another young female Senator like Kristen Gillibrand? Is there a method to his madness, or did he just pull her name out of thin air?

  • Bob Collins

    //The original post dismisses Goldman’s piece because nobody else has reported the possibility, other than repeating Goldman’s statement.

    It does no such thing. It dismisses subsequent “news” stories because their source is Goldman’s piece and nothing but Goldman’s piece and because they ignore the point in Goldman’s piece that nobody else had mentioned Klobuchar’s name.

    It also ignores that Goldman’s original piece clearly indicated that it’s Elena Kagan’s gig.

    Let me put it this way: Other than Tom Goldman said something, what’s the news?

    //By why not follow through & get the explanation from Goldman for how he picked Klobuchar over other longshot potential nominees like gov Granholm (MI), or another young female Senator like Kristen Gillibrand?

    Because it’s not a piece about Goldman and his pick. It’s a piece about how news is created merely by repeating someone else’s opinion.

  • John O.

    Welcome to the new frontiers of journalism where the story isn’t really the story, but it is about the person who is writing the story, who wrote about the story the other person wrote.

    D.C. lives on this crap and they always have. If they did not have to talk about who the next appointee might be to the SCOTUS, then they would have to discuss the state of the Nationals, Caps, Wizards, D.C. United and/or the Redskins.

  • bsimon

    My frustration lies in that I think the Klobuchar story is an interesting one, even if she’s not on the President’s shortlist for SCOTUS. So I find it annoying that the story is merely used as a vehicle to make a point that isn’t as interesting.

  • Bob Collins

    Harsh stuff, indeed. I’m just going to suggest that the best role news people can play isn’t keeping you properly entertained, or even — to use your words — interested.

    There are certainly venues for “wouldn’t Amy Klobuchar be a terrific Supreme Court justice” discussion to be had. No argument there. However, that’s an entirely different structure than creating a false reality that she’s legitimately being considered because one blogger — one — said “wouldn’t Amy Klobuchar be a terrific Supreme Court justice?”.